Joe Queenan’s One for the Books is a series of loosely linked essays that chronicle the author’s encounters with books, bookstores and libraries. Books were his getaway car from a childhood in a Philadelphia slum to a house in Tarrytown, N.Y., paid for by writing and reading. The book crosses stand-up comedy with a first-person narrative of an adult self shaped by solitary childhood reading.
But One for the Books is also something more interesting, for which the best term might be some jaw-breaking neologism like “meta-autobibliography.” Queenan’s goal is also to suss out the customs of book lovers: to analyze what books mean to his friends and acquaintances (and a few enemies), and how books forge or destroy friendships.
As a child, Queenan read “because it made me feel superior to my working-class father — a ninth-grade dropout — and everyone like him.” As an adult, he made friends with other book lovers, and that’s where his troubles began. Giving people books, Queenan remarks, is like plying them with chicken biryani without first checking whether they hate cilantro.
Much of of the book is devoted to the ethics and etiquette of turning down such offers. Like some picky toddler making rules about what colors of food are not allowed onto his plate, Queenan invents whole categories of books he refuses to read: books by Yankees fans, books that reviewers have called “astonishing,” books recommended to him by “indecisive men whose shirt collars are a dramatically different color from the main portion of the garment.”
Given the small proportion of the American book-buying public that is male, Queenan’s taste risks alienating his audience. There’s nothing he hates more than “books that thirtyish women devour at private swim clubs, often to the dismay of their drowning children,” unless it’s a “bittersweet, life-affirming novel about a recently divorced woman who had moved to a small town in Maine or the Massif Central or the Mull of Kintyre and, after initially being shocked by the ham-fisted demeanor of the rough-hewn locals, was seduced by their canny charm.”
Yet he is no crueler to “the woman who reads books like The Piano Tuner, The Pianist, The Piano Lesson, Learning the Piano, The Piano Players, or The Piano Teacher” than to “the man who will gleefully devour any of the 1,615,000 books that have been written about Abraham Lincoln.”
Between those who dance on the book’s grave and those who mourn its passing, One for the Books steers a middle course. Queenan has no more patience for the “techno-twits” eager to usher in a future where librarians “would merely be on hand to change printer cartridges” than for independent bookstores whose staff show “disproportionate respect for writers named Banana and Arno.”
Queenan is kinder to books than to such book lovers and One for the Books may be cheeky, but it’s got a heart of gold.
Leah Price reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.